Emancipation: much more than pretty garb

By Raffique Shah
August 07, 2023

Raffique ShahIn order for someone to enslave another human being, that unconscionable sub-human must possess sinister ways, lack empathy, and compassion. In my view a human being cannot enslave another human being because all of the above are part of humanity, most of which must be missing for the enslaver to put another human being in chains—not necessarily physically but mentally, such that it compels the slave to serve the master.

I must have been around age 15 when I wrote in an essay at college, something close to what I quoted above. A history teacher, who went into the gory details of the Atlantic Slave Trade, whereby European slave traders would journey to Africa, capture and/or buy men mostly, but some women and children, too.

In tales of horror that will have shocked us at the time, he spoke extensively on slavery of the African people, affecting my psyche to the extent that I took it upon myself to read further. I remember a particular drawing of the deck of a large slave ship with naked men shackled alongside one another presumably remaining in such conditions for the entire journey that would take them across the South Atlantic towards countries like Brazil, islands of the Caribbean, and the most lucrative of all, the United States.

I could not believe that such inhumanity existed in the world at any time and certainly not in relatively recent times, meaning the 19th century. But the truth was there in black and white: millions of Africans were stolen from Africa as Bob Marley later sang, and taken to America. If they survived the most brutal conditions ever at sea, they were then subjected to the harshest labour and living conditions one can imagine and were often beaten by their masters until they bled, if they were lucky.

That story was my introduction to slavery. It left indelible marks on my later interpretations, not only of the millions of slaves, but especially so of the monarchs in Europe and the ruling classes who lived in luxury off the earnings of these “slaves” and relished in the savagery of their punishments.

The history taught to us was the rude awakening that prompted me to look at the likes of Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Henry Morgan, among other beasts in human form whom we were all but compelled to adore for their heroics in building the British Empire.

I sometimes mused on the millions of Africans who were abducted—whatever happened to their families? Further readings of history led me to conclude not only were they devoid of humane feelings, but they were celebrated, sometimes by the very slaves they had plundered from Africa, which is one of the curious contradictions in the history of ­slavery.

Mark you, I had not yet read Dr Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, and CLR James’s Black Jacobins, which I would do later in my life.

Another curious aspect of slavery, I wanted to know if Africans were the only victims. To my horror, I found that while they were the most brutalised, they were not the only victims of mass slavery. In fact, the Europeans were not the first to enslave Africans.

Besides internal slavery, meaning powerful Africans enslaving their own, a practice that sadly exists even today, the Arabs, long before the Europeans, had established their own slave trade, taking large numbers of Africans to the Arabian Emirates as slaves.

What was different was slaves were absorbed into the Arab society and, more importantly, its religion. A most notable case was ­Bilal, who rose from being a slave to one of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) most trusted aides. Many Arabs married African slaves. So this aspect of ­African slavery offered those who accepted Islam upward mobility, an opportunity rarely afforded to slaves.

My curiosity did not end there. I wanted to know if whites had, at any point, been enslaved. I learned that they had been. The Slavics from mid-Europe were not only enslaved in large numbers, but provided a high percentage of women and eunuchs that adorned the harems of royalty in many countries. The Ottoman Empire captured large numbers of prisoners whom they enslaved.

Although I did not delve into the Far East, the little reading I did showed that slavery existed in one form or other, but mainly for hard labour and sex in most countries in the world. Slavery for sex purposes has long been a highly profitable enterprise.

What we face in Trinidad ­today is no different to what other older societies faced hundreds of years ago. I seek neither to justify nor to trivialise the brutal African slave trade to the west, but I feel compelled to advise my African brethren that Emancipation Day should mean much more than expensive Afro-wear and a good time. They and their future gene­rations should explore their history much more than I, a mere scribe, did out of curiosity.